Step Three: Ignoring & Encouraging Behaviors
This is part of a multi-step series on how to change unwanted cat behaviors. Click here to learn more.
If you take away anything on this series of correcting our cats’ behaviors, I hope you take away two things. First, too often we try to correct feline behaviors by approaching the situation from our perspective rather than our cat’s. Often this sends the wrong message to our cat, and sometimes enforces the very behavior we’re trying to eliminate!
Like you, I can think back to times where I’ve unknowingly enforced unwanted behaviors. I’ve been that person who gets up at 3 a.m. to feed a cat who won’t leave us alone in hopes that he’ll then be preoccupied by food. Sometimes, Matt would even get out of bed super early in the morning to play with CG to try to wear him out. (PS, both of those are bad ideas!)
I’ve talked to my cats and given them kisses when they’re having a whole loud conversation with me, and I’ve yelled or chased at cats to try to get them to stop doing something (like scratching at a door, etc.). Unfortunately, none of these reactions will help improve or change a cat’s behavior.
The solution is to realize how all of our instinctual reactions are interpreted by our cats, and to instead come up with disciplines and reactions that are in line with our cats’ understanding.
And here’s the other big takeaway: Cats love attention. When our cats do something nice, we give them positive attention. When they do something wrong, we usually give them negative attention. There lies the problem – it’s still attention. Your cat feeds off it and will continue the behavior to get more attention – positive or negative.
The solution? When they’re engaging in an unwanted behavior, don’t respond. That’s it. When your cat misbehaves, ignore him. Do not speak one word to him. Here your actions will “speak” volumes to your cat, as you deny him the attention he desires. By not reacting, he’ll realize that the behavior is no longer effective, and he’ll soon turn his attention to other things.
Note: Use some wisdom when deciding when to ignore your cat. Negative behaviors like scratching at a door so you’ll open it are different from your cat having litter box troubles. Determining the root of your cat’s behavior will help.
Training your cat involves more than simply ignoring him. It also involves positive reinforcement, that is, rewarding him for good behavior, too. The goal is to make the behaviors you want more enjoyable than the behaviors you want to discourage. Immediately reward your cat once he does something you like. He’ll associate that with the behavior, and will likely repeat it for more of the reward.
That said, timing is essential when modifying a behavior. If you come home to a scratched-up couch, punishing your cat after the fact won’t do any good. Your cat won’t connect the two. To be effective, the reward or discipline needs to come immediately after the behavior.
When your cat does something well – like using her scratching post, being kind to another one of your cats, you can reward her in several ways like pets, praise, food or treats (use this reward sparingly!), and playtime. Some cats even respond well to being combed or playing with a certain toy. You likely know what gets your cat excited. Use that as a motivator and reward.
Here’s where it gets tricky: Remember that attention in our cats’ eyes is seen as a reward. So even if you think you’re disciplining your cat, if you’re giving them any attention at all, you may be unintentionally rewarding them.
So why did my methods above not work? Let’s take a look:
Problem: Cat won’t sleep through the night and keeps you awake. Wrong solution: Waking up to play or feed your cat. Why? Your cat views playtime and food as rewards, so you’re simply enforcing the behavior, as if it’s OK. Better solution: Make sure you play with your cat before you go to bed, put out some food to hold them over (or get a scheduled feeder), and ignore them (close the door, put in earplugs) if that doesn’t work.
Problem: Your cat is very vocal with his demands. Wrong solution: Talking back to your cat while petting him or giving him various things that he may want. Better solution: Ignore your cat when he’s getting too demanding. If necessary, give him a timeout in a quiet room for 20 minutes (and no attention!). If he still acts up once he comes out of timeout, repeat the process.
Problem: Your cat paws at doors, scratches at things he shouldn’t, etc. Wrong solution: Although we see running up to the cat and yelling as negatives, they’re exactly what your cat wants – attention. He soon learns that if he wants your attention, all he needs to do is engage in that behavior. Instead, ignore him as much as possible while he’s misbehaving. This will be difficult, and may mean that you need to move/remove/change some things in your home to make this a bit easier on everyone. For example, if your cat always knocks over your bathroom wastebasket, perhaps get a new one with a lid or keep it in a cabinet.
Through all of this, it may help to remember a few tips:
- Use your cat’s natural behavior to your advantage.
- Cat-proof your home as much as possible.
- Use timeouts if necessary (do not play, pet, or talk to a pet who’s in timeout).
If you continue to be diligent in ignoring undesired behaviors and rewarding good behaviors, you should start to see a long-term change in your cat. Remember, things will not change overnight. But by continuously communicating the same messages to our cat, they’ll understand and modify their behavior on their own.